State Nationalism and the Humanization of Manuel Roxas: A Criticism of Peter Solis Nery’s The Passion of Jovita Fuentes

Like Antaeus in mythology who fought Hercules, the artist must needs stand always on solid earth, his feet on the soil, because from the heat and power of the soil spring the life and strength of his body.

—Amado V. Hernandez

It has become universal convention to point out the powerful role of Philippine literature in the formation of the Filipino nation. Beginning with Jose Rizal’s writing of Noli me tangere and El filibusterismo, much of Philippine literature in its different modes have been concerned with the fostering of a national consciousness forged in the struggle against foreign domination. The Passion of Jovita Fuentes, Peter Solis Nery’s 2008 Palanca Award-winning play, promises to carry on this Philippine literary tradition of writing the nation in a play about the romance of Jovita Fuentes and the late Philippine President Manuel Roxas.

“With the quest for Philippine independence as backdrop, Nery has created a spellbinding story out of the social and political forces that shaped the twentieth century,” the foreword approvingly endorses[1] what it describes as a “love story of two people whose lives shaped and were shaped by the country they loved.”[2] But these grandiose claims lead to the question as to the exact meaning of the love of country that Nery’s play claims to represent. Does it forward the national democratic struggle which aims for radical transformations in the social system? Or does it forward an “official” state nationalism based on the agenda of the regime in power?[3]

The national democratic struggle equates the nation with the people, primarily the peasant and proletarian masses, which compose the nation while state nationalism equates it simply to the different official institutions that constitute the Philippine state. This “official” nationalism is mobilized in order to dupe the toiling masses into accepting domination by the big businessmen, big landlords, and their foreign masters. A close reading of the play, following these distinctions would reveal the absence of any reference to the masses.

The Passion of Jovita Fuentes’ narrative is confined around the lives of Jovita Fuentes and Roxas’ immediate circles of the families of big landlords and traditional politicians. The first four scenes of the First Act are set in the households of the protagonists in old provincial Capiz. Here, the characters leisurely occupy themselves with idle talk, elegant parties, and western classical music. The years are 1912, 1915, and 1919 respectively, the period of the consolidation of American colonial rule after a decade of a bloody genocidal war against the resisting native population – a backdrop that is astonishingly absent in the play.

The last scene of the First Act meanwhile shows Jovita in her bedroom with a gramophone playing Ernest Charle’s “When I Have Sung My Songs To You.” The setting shifts in Act Two where Jovita is described gallivanting in the stylish drawing rooms, opera houses, cafes, plazas, and hotels of Europe. In 1946, after the destruction of the Second World War brought about by the Japanese occupation and the American invasion to liberate the country, Jovita moves between her affluent Manila home and performances in Malacañang.

It would therefore seem while reading the play that the Filipino masses are absent in the unfolding of Philippine history – that the events surrounding the country are the exclusive province of the main characters’ fellow elites. The kind of patriotism espoused by Nery cannot hence be anything else but the hollow “official” nationalism of the state.

More disturbing than this one-sided focus on the lives of the Filipino rich and famous under the American colonial regime, however, is the unabashed propagation of colonial ideologies. This paradox of a supposedly “patriotic” play parroting colonial ideology is understandable considering state nationalism’s artificiality, occasionally whipped up by those in power as part of their larger objective of expanding the interests of their parties and families using the resources and money of the people.[4] This “official” nationalism does not resist the continuing neocolonial control over the country’s political, economic and cultural life because the ruling classes stands precisely to benefit from this setup as the local puppet of foreign powers.

In the first scene, Manuel Roxas narrates how he was sent abroad to learn English because this was “the language of the future.”[5] The characters would wrangle over the complete name of Mozart, one of the idols of western high culture.[6] The play also insinuates that only the experience of going outside the country is the epitome of success and the key to becoming an accomplished artist.[7] Of course, these can be forgiven as innocent descriptions of the real aspirations of the Filipino middle and upper classes during the era described in the play.

What escapes comprehension is the attempt at revising certain parts of Philippine history in the play.[8] The attempt to one-sidedly bloat Manuel Roxas’ involvement in the anti-Japanese guerrilla struggle while remaining silent on his subsequent collaboration with the Japanese is instructive:

MANUEL: I could not leave my family. The Japanese invaders were merciless. I wanted to stay in the Philippines, to be near, in case something happened.

JOVITA: But you didn’t stay with your family. You went down to Mindanao and fought the Japanese.

MANUEL: How could I do otherwise? I could not sit and wait. To protect my loved ones I had to fight off the enemy. Besides, if I stayed with you and Trining, the Japanese would have easily gotten me. I was identified with the pro-American leadership. I could not betray my President and my country.[9]

All this sounds all too heroic. But in fact, after Roxas’ 1942 capture by the Japanese in Malaybalay, Bukidnon barely a year after the onset of hostilities, Roxas would serve the Jose Laurel Japanese puppet government. Far from simply fighting off the enemy and not sitting and waiting, Roxas would even serve Laurel’s Cabinet as chairman of the Japanese puppet government’s Economic Planning Board. He escaped from the Japanese high command in Baguio only in April 15, 1945 with the hasty Japanese retreat.[10] After the Second World War, Roxas would not be tried as a collaborator because of U.S. intervention. He formed the Liberal Party and subsequently won national elections as its presidential candidate. The Americans favored Roxas because they could scare him with the collaboration issue. He could thus easily be blackmailed into accepting unequal treaties with the former colonizers.[11] The play thus seems to be an attempt to rehabilitate Roxas and the neocolonial conditions that he willingly fostered under American auspices after the Second World War.

By the end of the play, Jovita Fuentes would cry a river of tears after hearing the news of Manuel Roxas’ unexpected death:

[JOVITA is shocked. She gropes for a chair and sits with tears pouring from her eyes.]

MERCEDES: He gave a speech at Clark Air Base in Angeles this morning. A short while later, he had a heart attack and died.

JOVITA [building in intensity]: No. No! [screams] No, no, no, no. Nooooo! [hysterically] God, no! Nooo! My Manolinggggg![12]

In this passage, as is true of the entire play, it is suggested that women can only find happiness in men. The play insinuates that only a marriage union ending is the only key to personal happiness. And indeed, it is only by sacrificing her happiness in a domestic union with Roxas can Jovita achieve success independently as a woman. Not surrendering oneself to the dictates of patriarchal society may lead to a successful career but this would only lead to discontentment. Only marriage with a Man can make the Woman happy: “When Manoling asked me to elope, I said no… Because of that, I lost the one I loved most.”[13]

Even as Roxas is insinuated as a playboy and a scheming traditional politician who leaves Jovita for a politically-advantageous marriage, Jovita continues to desire a union with him: “I ran to Europe so I would not get in the way of Manoling’s sacred vows. I respected the sanctity of his marriage even if the sacrament was denied to me. Even as it killed me inside, I stayed away, not writing or calling. The joy of my successes had none to be shared with.”[14] Jovita Fuentes is thus juxtaposed as the figure of the Other who masks the system’s defects: “As Woman is the binary to Man, so leisure is to work, personal life is to public life, the domestic sphere to the political, the emotional life to the economic.”[15]

By giving Roxas a human face, The Passion of Jovita Fuentes aids in the propagation of official state nationalism and its concurrent subservience to neocolonial interests. This idealization of Roxas through an account of his love story with Fuentes is utterly repugnant in the light of the Roxas regime’s crimes against the Filipino people. As president, Roxas signed the U.S.-R.P. Treaty of General Relations which preserves the highest authority of the U.S. government over wide land area covered by the U.S. military bases. This Treaty also makes the right of U.S. corporations and citizens to earn property in the country equal to that of Filipino corporations and citizens. It also puts the Philippine foreign policy under the direction of the U.S. government. Roxas also oversaw the approval of the Bell Trade Act which allowed U.S. monopolies to exploit the country’s natural resources. Roxas signed the U.S.-R.P. Military Bases Treaty and the U.S.-R.P. Military Assistance Agreement which ensures continued U.S. control over the local armed forces. According to the Tydings Rehabilitation Act, the Philippine government must first approve the parity amendment before the U.S. will give the $500 million funds to rehabilitate the damage done by the war.[16]

These are the realities that the play seeks to elide in its depiction of Jovita Fuentes and Roxas’ romance as one that is united “in a passion for their homeland and in their mission to promote Philippine culture and establish a strong and proud nation.”[17] “The importance Philippine nationalism accorded to literature, and vice versa, is founded on two presuppositions: the capacity of literature to represent history truthfully, and the capacity of literature to intervene in history.”[18] This is unfortunately found wanting in Peter Solis Nery’s The Passion of Jovita Fuentes. Instead of standing firmly on the fertile soil of the Filipino people’s real historical struggles for national liberation and social justice, the play ultimately amounts to nothing more than a rehabilitation of one of the most corrupt, inept, and sycophantic puppets of U.S. imperialism. ■

Notes:

1. R.A. Simson “Foreword” to The Passion of Jovita Fuentes, By Peter Solis Nery (Quezon City: New Day Publishers, 1999), viii.

2. Ibid.

3. Rolando Tolentino, “Mga Bagay-bagay ng Bayan: Perspektibo, Realismo, at Nasyonalismo” Sipat Kultura: Tungo sa Mapagpalayang Pagbabasa, Pag-aaral at Pagtuturo ng Panitikan (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2007), 123.

4. Ibid.

5. Peter Solis Nery, The Passion of Jovita Fuentes (Quezon City: New Day Publishers, 1999), 6.

6. Ibid, 16-17.

7. Ibid, 68-69.

8. Another historical inaccuracy in the play is found in the second scene of Act Two, which is placed as somewhere between the years 1924 and 1929. Here, the country is described as belonging to a “Commonwealth under the United States of America.” Unfortunately, it is common historical fact that the commonwealth government was inaugurated only in November 1935 with Manuel Quezon as president.

9. Nery, The Passion of Jovita Fuentes, 116.

10. Kasey Albano, Jopy Arnaldo, Drea Bautista, and Aika Beltran, The Administrations of Aquino: An Interactive Analysis, 4 September 2010. Retrieved 20 March 2011 from http://historicitythemovie.tumblr.com

11. Amado Guerrero, Lipunan at Rebolusyong Pilipino. Ikatlong Edisyon (Philippines: Pambansang Kawanihan sa Pagsasalin ng Partido Komunista Pilipinas (Marxista-Leninista-Maoista), 1986), 44.

12. Nery, The Passion of Jovita Fuentes, 126.

13. Ibid., 128.

14. Ibid.

15. Rosario Cruz Lucero, “Romancing the Otherness of Women,” Reading Popular Culture, New Edition, Ed. Soledad Reyes (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Office of Research and Publications, 2002), 145.

16. Guerrero, Lipunan at Rebolusyong Pilipino, 44-45.

17. Simson, “Foreword,” viii.

18. Caroline Hau, Necessary Fictions: Philippine Literature and the Nation, 1946-1980 (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2000), 7.

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